Missing Steve

How to bring peace into the Israeli workplace.

Doctor walks to national labor court_311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Doctor walks to national labor court_311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
When children fight, Israeli parents often impose a familiar ritual. The warring kids link their little fingers and say in unison, “brogez brogez, af pa’am” (fight, never), “sholem sholem, l’olam” (peace forever). The “sholem” may last for weeks, or for less than 30 seconds.
In Israel’s fractious society, with left vs. right, religious vs. secular and labor vs. capital, the law courts are increasingly asked to play the similar role of the responsible adult. This is especially true in bitter ongoing labor disputes. According to the “World Competitiveness Yearbook,” Israel ranks second-last in labor relations among 50 countries, with 128 working days per 1,000 inhabitants lost to strikes yearly. (In contrast, in half of the 50 countries, it was less than five working days). That’s a total cost of roughly $50 million.
Almost invariably, employers (usually the Finance Ministry) appeal to the National Labor Court to order strikers back to work. Regrettably, the Labor Court now appears to be siding with the employers and with the government, at the expense of workers’ legitimate rights. At this moment, medical residents, women basketball players, Wolfson Hospital nurses, Ashdod Port workers and the Histadrut labor federation on behalf of contract workers (see The Report, “The Vulnerable Employee,” November 21) are battling for their rights.
The Labor Court seems to me to be unfairly siding against them, in many instances.
Take for instance the doctors’ strike, which lasted from March through August. The residents are the backbone of Israel’s hospital medical care and work long shifts for low pay. They rejected the collective agreement signed last August by the organization that represents them, the Israel Medical Association, not least because it fails to address the underlying issues: crowded hospitals, lack of nursing staff and poor working conditions. In protest, many of the residents resigned. Under Judge Nili Arad, the Labor Court declared their resignations invalid, saying the mass resignations were a “collective protest,” calling them a “strike in disguise.”
Since when in a free country do courts force people to work against their will? The Finance Ministry says that if every splinter group can reject a collective bargain signed by their leaders, there will be chaos.
But, in my opinion, logic and justice trump legal precedent.
Not only do labor problems escalate into strikes, but court decisions seem to work their way up to the Supreme Court. Arad’s ruling on the residents went before a three-judge Supreme Court panel. On November 17, Supreme Court Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch ruled against the residents, saying, “They are taking the law into their own hands.”
Frankly, I miss Steve Adler. Adler was trained at Cornell University’s famed Industrial and Labor Relations program, under Prof. Harry Katz. He made aliya in 1968 from Flatbush, Brooklyn, after working for America’s National Labor Relations Board.
He headed the National Labor Court from 1997 until he retired in November 2010. He was regarded as tough and fair. He once stopped a teachers’ strike, viewing it as partially political. But he also ruled frequently on workers’ behalf, including granting overtime pay to legal interns.
He once said that his best mediating experience came from raising five sons. Adler was a great listener. He always treated both sides with respect, listened to their case patiently and led endless hours and days and nights of collective bargaining, focusing on a fair deal.
Israel’s justice system is adversarial, with prosecutor and defendant. But the Labor Court was designed differently. It is based on the German labor court system and seeks justice through compromise.
To gain that compromise, the court must be unbiased, meticulously fair, patient and respectful. I regret that much of the immense personal capital Adler built up is being dissipated as the Labor Court becomes increasingly adversarial.
And some of the blame must be laid at the feet of the Finance Ministry and its head, Yuval Steinitz. The Finance Ministry invariably tries to pass society through the narrow eye of its budgetary needle. It opposed the Histadrut’s fight for contract workers, because paying those workers fairly would burden the budget. It opposes the medical residents’ right to quit, I believe for the same reason. And it frequently uses the Labor Court to squelch legitimate industrial actions.
The problem is getting worse. The economic slowdown I wrote about earlier in The Report has now reached Israel, hitting tax revenues and creating a NIS 4 billion ($1.08 billion) budget shortfall.
The Finance Ministry will likely fight even harder now against the downtrodden workers. To be fair, Israel has so far avoided the chaos in Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and even America, where reckless government spending created a massive debt that cannot be repaid.
But fiscal conservatism cannot, must not, come at the expense of the working poor, the lowest-paid segments of society. And the Labor Court must not become a weapon for making this happen.
In the wake of the social protest movement, labor is again organizing to demand its rights. The result often ends up on the doorstep of the Labor Court. Let the court and its head judge respect and protect the fundamental human right of workers to organize and to protest.
The cost of strikes is very high. But for a free nation, the cost of disenfranchised workers is even higher.
The writer is senior research fellow, S. Neaman Institute, Technion.